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Dame Edna is in Toronto for the North American leg of her ‘glorious goodbye.’

Alastair Muir

3.5 out of 4 stars

Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye
Written by
Barry Humphries
Directed by
Simon Phillips
Barry Humphries
Princess of Wales Theatre

For the opening of Dame Edna's Glorious Goodbye at the Princess of Wales Theatre, I bought myself a new blazer.

That's not something I do for every visiting showbiz icon, even a self-proclaimed giga-star like Dame Edna. But I'd read in her recent Globe interview how the habitually resplendent grande dame deplores the current trend of dressing casually for the theatre. And I also knew that she loves to pick on individual audience members – her "possums," as she affectionately calls us.

So if I was going to be singled out for ridicule, I was determined that at least it wouldn't be because I was wearing sweatpants and a faded souvenir T-shirt from Wicked.

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"Wicked" is, in fact, the apt word to describe this former Australian housewife turned global celebrity. Thankfully, I was spared "the rough edge of her tongue" (as she would put it), but others weren't so fortunate. From the moment she sashayed onstage, rocking a sparkly pink frock along with her signature mauve bouffant and rhinestone eyewear, Dame Edna was on the warpath. Pity poor Elaine from Scarborough, gently mocked for not being able to describe her own house. "Is it detached?" our glittering hostess prodded, as if speaking to an especially slow child. "Can you walk around it?" Or Nancy from Burlington, coaxed into revealing that her bed has a grey spread. "What colour was it originally?" Dame Edna sweetly asked.

Then there was the critic who did catch her attention. Seeing him scribbling notes in the front row, Edna helpfully spelled out difficult words for him.

Of course, we happily submit to her pointed irony, elephantine ego and queenly condescension, coming as it does from a comedy legend celebrating her 60th year in existence. It was back in 1955 that Edna sprang, half-formed, from the brow of a young Australian actor named Barry Humphries. Originally a send-up of genteel suburban ladies (Edna, or Mrs. Norm Everage as she was known then, hailed from Melbourne's Moonee Ponds), by the 1980s and '90s she'd blossomed into the gaudy international stage and television star we know and love today. Along the way she'd acquired a spurious title and evolved from a parochial parody to a witty (and prescient) satire of empty celebrity. She was famous for being famous long before Kardashian was a household name.

Now she's in Toronto as part of the North American leg of her "glorious goodbye" – a long farewell tour that kicked off in 2013 at the London Palladium. And while 60 seems a bit early to retire, her alter ego, Humphries, just turned 81 in February. Not that he shows it. His Edna can still dance (gingerly), sing – replete with ear-shredding high notes – and hurl her beloved gladioli like javelins into the auditorium. Most importantly, though, Humphries retains the whip-sharp mind of a great standup/character comedian who can deliver two solid hours of deliciously funny material, heavily spiced with ad libs and local jokes, and do it entirely in a flawless falsetto.

The U.K. version of this farewell show – directed, appropriately enough, by Simon Phillips of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert fame – actually provided more of a showcase for Humphries the actor, incorporating his other popular personae, the obnoxious diplomat Sir Les Patterson and the nostalgic old-timer Sandy Stone. For North American consumption, however, it's all Dame Edna all the time.

She spends the first half of the evening mainly riffing off the audience and telling anecdotes about her late husband Norm and their kids. There are the familiar bewildered remarks about Kenny, her dress-designer son, whose sexual orientation remains Dame Edna's biggest blind spot. And we get an update on her wayward daughter Valmai, apparently now living at Jane and Finch and raising pitbulls.

After a 20-minute intermission, we're treated to a Bollywood-flavoured part two: a slightly musty spoof of Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, in which "Shiva Edna" recounts her stay at an ashram in India, where she hung with the Dalai Lama and learned about – what else? – the importance of self-love.

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There are satirical touches here and there. The show opens with a lurid video exposé of Dame Edna's seamy side (including a hilarious interview with Hugh Jackman) and the second act takes a dig at how Western spiritual quests tend to reaffirm our Western self-centredness. But the satire feels as perfunctory as Dame Edna's backup ensemble – four young dancers (Ralph Coppola, Brooke Pascoe, Eve Prideaux and Armando Yearwood Jr.) who function mainly as sexy window dressing.

However, to criticize this production for being unfocused, uneven and just a teensy bit overlong would be to miss the point entirely. We're not here to watch a well-made play, but to witness, perhaps for the final time onstage, one of the supreme comic creations of the past 60 years. Dame Edna enters blithely commanding our adulation and then the hard-working Humphries spends the next two hours more than earning it. This is a show that was well worth buying a blazer for.

Dame Edna's Glorious Goodbye runs until April 19.

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